Recommended Reading: The Periphery

 

© 2014 Justin Kingsley Bean, "Outer Edge"

© 2014 Justin Kingsley Bean, “Outer Edge”

I’ve never met or communicated with Philip Conklin, who turns 24 today. But his girlfriend, Katrina Santos, wrote me about a week ago, telling me about their new online magazine The Periphery and his birthday and proposing that I write him about one of his essays and offer some feedback and advice. I’m not sure if I can offer any advice, because he seems to be doing pretty well on his own without my mentoring, but I would like to call attention to three of his film pieces that I especially like, and to The Periphery more generally, which seems well worth checking out:

http://www.theperipherymag.com/filmgoing-in-the-internet-age

http://www.theperipherymag.com/modern-times

http://www.theperipherymag.com/the-grand-budapest-hotel

I’m sure that there’s more here to discover and enjoy, so consider the above just a sampler. [7/24/14]… Read more »

This Way, Myth [on ME AND ORSON WELLES]

Written for Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], and posted there on October 9, 2008. — J.R.

“A writer’s reputation,” Lionel Trilling once wrote, “often reaches a point in its career where what he actually said is falsified even when he is correctly quoted. Such falsification — we might more charitably call it mythopoeia — is very likely the result of some single aspect of a man’s work serving as a convenient symbol of what other people want to think. Thus it is a commonplace of misconception that Rousseau wanted us to act like virtuous savages or that Milton held naive, retrograde views of human nature.”

Although Orson Welles is rightly regarded as someone whose creative work partially consisted of his own persona, he remains unusually susceptible to mythmaking of this sort. This is because he often figures as someone who both licenses and then becomes the scapegoat for vanity that isn’t entirely — or even necessarily — his own. Quite simply, many of those (especially males) who obsess on the “meaning” of “Orson” are actually looking for ways to negotiate their own narcissism and fantasies of omnipotence.

It’s part of the special insight of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, to perceive and run with this aspect of the Welles myth, which is already implied in its title.… Read more »

Pearl Harbor

From the Chicago Reader (May 23, 2001). — J.R.

Pearl-Harbor

Three hours and three minutes of guff and goo about the nobility of killing and/or being killed for arbitrary reasons, whether you’re an American soldier or a Japanese. This is the Star Wars view of the U.S.’s entry into World War II (enemies are invisible and bloodless), which means that even though much of the story takes place in Hawaii, Hawaiians are deemed inconsequential, and the only ordinary Japanese we ever see apart from a few old soldiers are passing details in two shots: kids in the distance flying a kite and a couple of nice ladies in kimonos, both viewed before — not during or after — an air attack. If you decide to hit the concessions stand (where you’re bound to have lots of company), I’d suggest going out for popcorn during either the first hour or the third, because the second features some pretty good big-screen effects involving planes, ships, and explosions. (This is from the same team that brought you The Rock and Armageddon.) The lead characters are fairly interchangeable jocks and nurses — a bit like the characters in Starship Troopers but without the irony, aside from Jon Voight under tons of makeup striking presidential poses as FDR.… Read more »

Blackmail (1974 review)

This appeared in the October 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. This was long before the silent version of Blackmail was rediscovered and restored. — J.R.

Blackmail

Great Britain, 1929                                 Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The extraordinary plateau attained by Hitchcock’s first sound film in relation to his overall development is the sum of many accomplishments: above all, a decisive mastery in moving back and forth between objective and subjective narrative modes. If the point-of-view is one of the cornerstones in Hitchcockian syntax, the film quite likely represents the first time in the director career that it is woven so seamlessly into a plot that all notions of stylistic “touches” gives way to a sustained psychological density. Beginning virtually like a documentary, Blackmail provides a quick foretaste of subjective truth in its early glimpses of the anonymous criminal, which subtly veer from the police’s viewpoint to his own – shifting, that is, from one kind of fear and apprehension to another. The complex overtones and ambiguities of the film are informed throughout by this kind of duplicity and intimacy, which oblige us to identify with rapist along with potential victim, murderer along with corpse, and detective along with blackmailer, at the same time as we are asked to regard them all with a certain amused skepticism.… Read more »

Open Spaces [THE NEWTON BOYS]

From the April 3, 1998 Chicago Reader. My affection for Richard Linklater’s most underrated film has only grown over time. — J.R.

The Newton Boys

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Linklater, Claude Stanush, and Clark Lee Walker

With Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Chloe Webb.

Shortly before reseeing Richard Linklater’s sixth feature, The Newton Boys, I caught up with his first — a Super-8 opus from 1988 with the enigmatic title It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [see below]. Essentially an epic of inaction starring Linklater himself, the movie consists mainly of hanging out, taking train rides, driving, using a variety of vending machines, doing household chores, and watching movies on TV. The film might be described as a noncommercial version of his second feature, the 1991 Slacker – a Slacker without much dialogue or plot, devoted to the everyday pleasures of vegetating and drifting. Some of it reminds me of structural films and of the work of Jon Jost. Just about all of it is attractively shot. And Linklater’s film references — including choice bits from the sound tracks of The Killing and Some Came Running and an extended ravishing clip from Gertrud — pop up like generous, unexpected gifts.… Read more »

The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax

From the May-June 1994 Film Comment; also reproduced in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

First come words. No, emotions . . .
— line overheard in party scene of BOY MEETS GIRL

Introducing André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View in the late 70s, François Truffaut registered his opinion that “all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office . . . stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) acceptbeautiful prose — John Ford, Howard Hawks — or even poetic prose — Hitchcock, Roman Polanski — but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales.” [Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991, 26.]

I’m not at all sure about fables and allegories — think of Campion’s THE PIANO and Kieslowski’s BLUE for two recent examples, neither of which the public seems to have much difficulty in accepting — and the Disney organization churns out fairy tales on a regular basis. But when it comes to poetry, pure and otherwise, I think Truffaut had a point. It explains not only why Welles never made a movie that was a commercial hit when it was first released but also why filmmakers as otherwise dissimilar as F.… Read more »

Washington Paranoia from the Left and Right: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL & MY SON JOHN

Written in July 2008. If memory serves, this was for an issue of Stop Smiling devoted to Washington, D.C. — J.R.

 

To get the full measure of what Cold War paranoia was doing

to the American soul, two of the best Hollywood A-pictures

of the early 50s, each of which pivots around its Washington,

D.C. locations – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and My

Son John (1952) — still speak volumes about their shared zeitgeist,

even though they couldn’t be further apart politically.

 

An archetypal liberal parable in the form of a science fiction

thriller and an archetypal right-wing family tragedy (with deft

slapstick interludes) that’s even scarier, they’re hardly equal in

terms of their reputations. Leo McCarey’s My Son John, widely

regarded today as an embarrassment for its more hysterical elements,

has scandalously never come out on video or DVD [2014 footnote, it's

now available from Olive Films], though in its own era it garnered

even more prestige than Robert Wise’s SF thriller, having received

an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. It also features

the last and in some ways richest film performances of both Helen

Hayes and Robert Walker. (Although she lived another four

decades, Hayes chose never to act in a feature again, and Walker

died unexpectedly while My Son John was still being shot,

from an overdose of the sedative sodium amytal, administered by

his doctor in ambiguous circumstances.)

 

At once profound about the dynamics of family discord

involving cultural differences and deranged about the Communist

menace, My Son John shows with equal sincerity and intensity

McCarey’s complex understanding of people and his unqualified

support of the FBI’s totalitarian surveillance of his most sympathetic

character (Hayes), when she confirms what they already know —-

that her favorite son (Walker), John, a Washington bureaucrat, is a

Communist agent.Read more »

A Little Transcendence Goes a Long Way [MILLION DOLLAR BABY & THE AVIATOR]

From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Million Dollar Baby

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Paul Haggis

With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter

The Aviator

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by John Logan

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm

Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.

This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas   — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later.… Read more »

Sexual Healing [ROMANCE]

From the Chicago Reader (November 12, 1999). — J.R.

Romance

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Catherine Breillat

With Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, Rocco Siffredi, and Francois Berleand.


I’ve never put much stock in my powers of prophecy, but it seems I was more off the mark than usual nine months ago when I emerged from the world premiere of Catherine Breillat’s Romance, in Rotterdam, thinking it would create a sensation if it reached the U.S. I somehow forgot that most movie sensations are the fabrications of publicists. Audiences can create sensations – The Blair Witch Project proves that — but reviewers, who are usually closer to publicists than to audiences, are often the last people to notice. So maybe Breillat’s seventh feature did cause a sensation with audiences when it opened in New York several weeks ago, but if so, I don’t think it’s been reported.

Nine months ago I decided that Romance was a pretty reactionary movie for France — mainly because of an offscreen statement made by the heroine near the end (“They say a woman isn’t a woman until she’s a mother; it’s true”). But I still thought it might be seen as progressive in America, especially because its rare confluence of cinematic taste, literary intelligence, and hard-core sex might undercut the crippling puritanism of our movie codes, which usually equate eroticism with porn, sleaze, and stupidity rather than, say, art, health, and intelligence.… Read more »

Pete Kelly’s Blues

Now that Jack Webb’s glorious PETE KELLY’S BLUES has finally become available on DVD, this seems like an appropriate time to exhume my Chicago Reader film blog post about it in 2007, now happily out of date, and update the links:

The market value of a missing movie
February 16th – 9:31 a.m.

Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and apparently a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb.… Read more »

Crass Consciousness (BARTON FINK)

From the August 23, 1991 Chicago Reader. This review is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies (1995). — J.R.

BARTON FINK

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

With John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, and Jon Polito.

I’m not one of the Coen brothers’ biggest fans. I walked out of Blood Simple, their first feature. The main sentiment I took away from Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing – their second and third efforts, both of which I stayed to the end of — was that at least each new Coen brothers movie was a discernible improvement over the last. Raising Arizona may have had some of the same crass, gratuitous condescension toward its country characters as Blood Simple, but it also had a sweeter edge and more visual flair. In both craft and stylishness, Miller’s Crossing was another step forward, and even if I never really believed in either the period ambience or the characters — the dialogue bristled with anachronisms, and Albert Finney’s crime boss seemed much too blinkered and naive for someone who was supposed to be ruling a city — the film nevertheless demanded a certain attention.… Read more »

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

The following, which I wrote circa March 2004, was commissioned for a Criterion box set; my thanks to Liz Helfgott, my editor there, for giving me the go-ahead to reprint this. — J.R.

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Movie trilogies can be created by either filmmakers or critics. When Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1973), he made no bones about calling them his Trilogy of Life. But when Michelangelo Antonioni followed L’avventura (1960) with La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), the intention was mainly apparent in the titles and a few echoes noted by critics, such as the presence of building sites at the beginning of the first and at the end of the third. As for the so-called Koker trilogy of Where is the Friend’s House? (1986), Life and Nothing More… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami explicitly refuses to yoke them together in this fashion—–which hasn’t prevented many critics and programmers from doing so.… Read more »

Cult of Personality (LET’S GET LOST)

From the July 21, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LET’S GET LOST

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bruce Weber.

Can you carry a tune? Is your time all right? Sing! If your voice has hardly any range, hardly any volume, shaky pitch, no body or bottom, no matter. If it quavers a bit and if you project a certain tarnished, boyish (not exactly adolescent, almost childish) pleading, you’ll make it. A certain kind of girl with strong maternal instincts but no one to mother will love you. You’ll make it. The way you make it may have little to do with music, but that happens all the time anyway.

This is jazz critic Martin Williams 30 years ago in a Down Beat review of It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings. By this time, the youthful Baker had already established a reputation as a jazz trumpeter of some promise, and later in the same review, Williams concedes that as an improvising musician, he has a “fragile, melodic talent” that is “his own,” even if he “has hardly explored it.” The same strictures might apply to Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s spellbinding (if simpleminded) black-and-white documentary about the life, times, and last days of Chet Baker.… Read more »

Working-Class America in American Cinema of the Depression and New Deal

Written in May 2014 for a forthcoming Spanish collection edited by Carlos Heredero about the American working-class during the Depression and the New Deal. — J.R.

blondecrazy

Writing about the reception of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in pre-Hitler [1928] Germany, Hannah Arendt noted (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) that “The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters.  The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral  [First comes food, then comes morals],” was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht had sought by it.”

My subject is “the presence and/or the protagonist of the working class in the American cinema of the Great Depression and the New Deal” (during the 30s and early 40s), so why am I evoking the German responses to a German play a couple of years prior to this period?Read more »

The Humanity of the Defeated: GERMANY YEAR ZERO

Written in September 2009 for a Criterion’s DVD box set devoted to Roberto Rossellini’s War trilogy, released a few months later. — J.R.

Unlike the more aesthetically and intellectually conceived French New Wave, Italian neorealism was above all an ethical initiative — a way of saying that people were important, occasioned by a war that made many of them voiceless, faceless, and nameless victims. But this was, of course, a conviction that carried plenty of aesthetic and intellectual, as well as spiritual, consequences, including some that we’re still mulling over today.

Deliberately or not, Germany Year Zero concludes Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy by posing a kind of philosophical conundrum, a fact already signaled by its title, which he borrowed, with permission, from a book by French sociologist Edgar Morin. It was a title that stumped even Joseph Burstyn and Arthur Mayer, the American producers of Rome Open City and Paisan, and the fact that Rossellini, characteristically trusting his instincts, refused to say what he meant by it eventually encouraged them to back out of the project, which was largely financed by the French government.… Read more »